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The International Digital Rights Mess (or Amazon’s Cock Up)

Over the past year, as more and more readers have become interested in ebooks, we’ve begun to realize one of the biggest problems is the mess of territorial rights. We had Fictionwise and BooksonBoard removing books from its bookstore. Fictionwise went so far as removing access to books that people had already purchased.

This past week, Amazon announced that it would sell its Amazon Kindle to 100+ countries and those Kindles would have cellular access so you could take advantage of the on Kindle book purchasing.   (which is really the only advantage of the Kindle at this point).   Two problems emerged from this announcement.   First, the release of the Kindle didn’t do anything to make more books available to international readers.   Amazon confirmed that it would be observing all territorial rights agreements.   Second, Amazon will actually be charging more for books sold outside the U.S.

Territorial Agreements

As I discussed in this article published in May of 2009, rights have traditionally been sold with translation and territory rights sold as one bundle known as “foreign rights”.   I argued that rights should be decoupled.   World digital rights could be granted while reserving translation rights.   One of the drawbacks of this is that it can inhibit the growth of a regional publishing industry.   Martin Taylor, Director of the New Zealand Digital Publishing Forum, argues that if the US published writers were to grant world digital rights to their publisher, it would serve to diminish the publishing power of the other countries:

Territorial rights are important to preserve. They allow countries to develop their own economically sustainable publishing industries and to reflect the specific dynamics of each market. The profits from country-specific international editions help sustain the infrastucture needed for local book publishing that is important both economically and culturally. Local pricing, and the ability to profit from locally generated sales and marketing initiatives are also important parts of this.

Language/translation rights can be a useful alternative to achieve this but only if you have a unique language. If, for instance, you’re a small English language market like New Zealand, it’s no barrier. The only way to have a chance of developing a local market is to have territorial rights.

Martin’s point is an important one, but in the meantime, what do readers do?   With no legitimate source, do readers in New Zealand, Australia or even the UK simply go without?

Higher Prices

Hidden behind the fluff of the news announcement of the great Kindle being available worldwide was the fact that Amazon intends to charge more, not only for the device itself, but also for the books.

When asked by the Guardian precisely how much downloads would cost, an Amazon.co.uk spokesman revealed that foreign customers – including those in Britain – would be paying $13.99 ( £8.75) per book instead of the American price of $9.99 ( £6.25). That amounts to a 40% premium for the same title.

“International customers do pay a higher price for their books than US customers due to higher operating costs outside of the US,” said the spokesman. “Additionally, VAT rates in the EU are higher on ebooks than on print books.”

Increased prices engender bad will for consumers. We don’t understand why the prices are higher (particularly if VAT rates have to be paid in addition to higher costs). The only thing we know is that the digital file is easily to store and deliver. It seems to us that there can be no extra cost. Indeed, we see there a savings for retailers and publishers.

The Result

The result of the digital rights confusion is readers not willing to adopt the ebook platform or for those who do adopt the platform, piracy is becomes a more attractive option. As guest blogger at Teleread points out, the seeming artificial boundaries prevent the customer from giving the content creator money.

I am not wanting to do something illegal. I want to make a perfectly legal purchase of an item on the Internet. I want to give the publisher (and hence the author) real, actual, genuine cash. Can I get the e-book any other way? No. So the old relict boundaries are preventing me from giving the author my money. What the-?

These kind of restrictions, in fact, do just create incentives for people to find ways around them, and thus almost certainly ending up meaning that the original creator gets nothing.

I’m not sure what the answer is – how best to balance the ability of countries to foster a publishing industry but still providing readers the books that they want. I do know that the internet is making boundaries seem superfluous and if those who want to make money from consumers must respond quickly or the boundaries will indeed be illusions as will profits. Publishing, worldwide, needs to start solving the problem of how to get books to the readers who want them.

Jane Litte is the founder of Dear Author, a lawyer, and a lover of pencil skirts. She spends her downtime reading romances and writing about them. Her TBR pile is much larger than the one shown in the picture and not as pretty. You can reach Jane by email at jane @ dearauthor dot com

33 Comments

  1. RKCharron
    Oct 11, 2009 @ 04:19:55

    Hi Jane :)
    Great post.
    I think what the ebook needs is a “google” or “facebook” or “twitter” = some new site (not Amazon!) which will buy, sell & deliver ebooks with the ease of the aforementioned programs/sites. *hear that, garage programmers out there?* A one-stop clearinghouse for all epublishing.
    :)
    Thanks again,
    RKCharron
    xoxo
    PS – The readers should not be proprietary but rather a universal ebook format.
    :)

    ReplyReply

  2. SarahT
    Oct 11, 2009 @ 04:21:50

    Great post, Jane.

    I don’t see how Amazon can justify the price of ebooks sold to international customers. I’m used to paying more for American goods in Europe, but these are tangible goods which require storage, shipping and a brick-and-mortar store in which to sell them.

    If I purchase an ebook from the eHarlequin website, the only extra cost to me is the 1.5% fee my credit card company charges me to use the card outside Switzerland. And this cost has nothing to do with eHarlequin. I’m assuming it is a similar situation at epublishers such as Ellora’s Cave.

    As a consumer, I’m allergic to hidden costs, and Amazon’s Kindle reeks of them.

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  3. Romancing The Library
    Oct 11, 2009 @ 05:36:55

    A friend in NZ has discovered that the Kindle will not be available to purchase for those living in New Zealand. Repeated emails to Amazon to discover why have been met with automatic replies only.

    Int’l buyers must click on a link on the Kindle page to select their country. This is what our friends across the Pond are being told:

    “Unfortunately, we are currently unable to ship Kindles or offer Kindle content in New Zealand.”

    As for extra cost, we already know that international roaming on our mobiles when we’re overseas costs a fortune, this is effectively what Amazon have set up. International roaming, using a US telco and passing along that cost to the reader. $4 for what effectively is an MMS? Ah, no thanks.

    Although I was looking to add a Kindle to my Christmas wish list, I’ve decided to stick with using the laptop to read my eBooks and to continue purchasing my books from everyone else, as I’ve been doing quite successfully for the past two years.

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  4. neva
    Oct 11, 2009 @ 05:46:28

    I am completely cranky about this whole ebook thing. I live in Australia and ebooks are my preferred format however recently I have had trouble accessing buying ebooks from fictionwise etc even when print versions have been released in Australia – the reason? Geographical restrictions. As you mention in your blog torrents are very widely available very quickly after (and sometimes even before) a book release. I have chosen to not ever download a pirated book however it gripes me that I cannot buy a book that I can download for free. The sum of the argument is that with the advent of the internet there are no geographical restrictions and if publishers don’t want to miss out they better get on board with that.

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  5. Nadia Lee
    Oct 11, 2009 @ 06:11:13

    Gadget problems and costs and restrictions, etc. etc. etc. are ultimately what led me to switch to print books. I don’t pay shipping when I buy from BookDepository.com and I’ve been very happy with their price & service so far.

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  6. Angie
    Oct 11, 2009 @ 06:32:53

    My problem with the Protect The Local Publishing Industry argument is that it’s become pretty clear that e-books are not competition for hardcopy books. Someone who wants a hardcopy usually won’t buy an e-book instead, even if the e-book is cheaper. (Which it darned well should be, but that’s another discussion.) People who prefer hardcopy books tend to prefer them very strongly; making e-books available in Market X isn’t going to do anything to prevent Market X from developing its own paper publishing industry.

    If the issue is that Market X doesn’t have an electronic publishing industry of its own, well, that’s actually pretty easy to fix, on the level of industry-wide efforts and government involvement. (And if they’re messing around with economic protectionism, then the government is already involved.) If you have people with publishing experience, the rest is relatively cheap and easy, on the scale of starting new businesses.

    So if they’re worried about their paper book industry, it’s a non-problem. And if they’re worried about their e-book industry, what’s stopping them?

    In the mean time, there are people from places like New Zealand who want e-books, and people who want to sell them e-books. But the New Zealanders aren’t allowed to buy them, which means some percentage of those people are going to steal them, because hey, the books are right there, and no one will take their money. All while the New Zealand publishing industry, whichever end of it is complaining, is trying to get its act together. Lovely. :/

    Angie

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  7. Nadia Lee
    Oct 11, 2009 @ 06:36:56

    Someone who wants a hardcopy usually won't buy an e-book instead, even if the e-book is cheaper. (Which it darned well should be, but that's another discussion.) People who prefer hardcopy books tend to prefer them very strongly.

    Angie,

    This assumes that there is no middle ground. There are a lot of people who don’t care if it’s print or not. The local publishers are probably worried about losing those customers.

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  8. Angie
    Oct 11, 2009 @ 06:42:07

    Nadia@7 — sure, there’s some middle ground, but very little. Even with all the spectacular growth e-book sales have had recently, they’re still, what, five percent of book sales? Something in that range?

    There are a lot of people who hang out online — and who hang out on book discussion sites like this one — who are into e-books, so it’s easy to get a distorted view of their popularity if you hang out here and listen to the e-book enthusiasm on a regular basis. But the vast majority of the reading audience wants a paper book, and doesn’t consider an e-book to be an acceptable substitute. It’s not a hundred percent of the customers, no. But it’s still pretty darned close.

    Angie

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  9. SarahT
    Oct 11, 2009 @ 07:08:43

    @Romancing The Library:

    Repeated emails to Amazon to discover why have been met with automatic replies only.

    So I’m not the only one who received automatic replies in response to very specific questions. I’ve e-mailed them three times so far and have yet to receive an actual answer to any of my questions.

    ReplyReply

  10. Azure
    Oct 11, 2009 @ 07:44:41

    They’re shooting themselves in the foot, they really are. Last Christmas, there was a post here about WHSmith having a 50% off ebook sale. I rushed over there, found ebooks by my favorite British authors which weren’t available anywhere here in the US, and bought them. And until about three weeks ago, I was able to buy ebooks from them. Then I went to buy a couple of ebooks by Fiona Walker that had just become available, and guess what? They couldn’t sell them to me because of geographical restrictions. WHY??? I could see the restrictions if she had a US publisher, but she doesn’t. As far as I know, she never has. I’ve always had to order the hard copies of her books from UK sites or get them off eBay (which is what I’m now going to have to do for her newest book). So congratulations, publishers. If you’re looking to boost your sales in this down economy, you’re doing a great job.

    ReplyReply

  11. Looks like I’ll be leaving Amazon soon… « Zoe Whitten’s Blog
    Oct 11, 2009 @ 09:00:07

    [...] like I’ll be leaving Amazon soon… Okay, first, go read this article: The International Digital Rights Mess (or Amazon's Cock Up). If you don’t, here’s the recap: Without my permission, Amazon jacked up the prices of [...]

  12. Katharina
    Oct 11, 2009 @ 09:13:46

    @Azure:

    Might I recommend Bookmooch.com! It’s a great international booktrading site that is wonderful for such books that are hard to find, difficult to get (thanks to silly regulations) and cheap to use, you only pay the postage.

    ReplyReply

  13. Links: DVD fade-out, global e-rights mess, and B&N’s share-an-e-book possibility | TeleRead: Bring the E-Books Home
    Oct 11, 2009 @ 10:04:53

    [...] –The international digital rights mess, in Dear Author, quoting David Grigg's guest post in the TeleRead blog (photo). [...]

  14. KristieJ
    Oct 11, 2009 @ 10:15:21

    I’m coming closer and closer all the time to going digital – but until the whole thing is simplified into a way that you can have access to any ebook no matter what the device, I’ll stay away.

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  15. Caligi
    Oct 11, 2009 @ 10:31:12

    I’m not sure I buy the “harms regional publishing” argument. If consumers prefer an international product to a regional one, what purpose does that regional publishing group serve beyond self-enriching obstruction? If they can’t compete, they’re obsolete, and good riddance.

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  16. Shirley
    Oct 11, 2009 @ 11:34:38

    Question: is it that Amazon is charging more, or has ATT/intl. carrier tacked on the fee (built into price of book.) I think you’ll find the higher cost lands as ATT’s doorstep. Sprint and Amazon have a superb deal for all transactions in the US. Outside our borders, along w/ VAT the new carrier is not so generous.

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  17. GrowlyCub
    Oct 11, 2009 @ 11:37:48

    And voila, more folks who want to legally buy and own e-books will either do without or be driven to torrent and storage sites where they will find what they want to buy for free. And authors don’t see a red cent. Great thinking Amazon and publishers! … NOT.

    Every since B&N bought Fictionwise I’ve bought many fewer e-books (they do not sell new e-books as .lit files any longer and blame the publishers). Good thing I had about half a mil already on my laptop which I’m slowly but surely transferring to my Sony 505; otherwise it would be another useless gadget…

    Gah!

    ReplyReply

  18. GrowlyCub
    Oct 11, 2009 @ 11:40:58

    What I’m kind of confused about is that when I still lived in Germany, I bought the majority of books in English (by US publishers, imported to Germany). Those books did indeed cost more because they had to physically be shipped and stored. Were all these 100s of books I bought sold illegally, circumventing territorial rights?

    If not, why not?

    There’s no conceivable reason for the e-books to cost more, that’s just pure greed on somebody’s part.

    ReplyReply

  19. Beau
    Oct 11, 2009 @ 12:05:29

    Re: Local vs worldwide

    Why can’t the negotiation be more about quid pro quo/networking. If American pubs have well established markets and distribution. Why not instead harness that by building associations that allow non-US pubs access to these markets on an exchange basis?

    Am I being too naive here? Educational systems and businesses operate this way when it suite their needs.

    ReplyReply

  20. kirsten saell
    Oct 11, 2009 @ 12:48:30

    There’s always gnashing of teeth and rending of hair when a localized industry finds itself becoming obsolete because it can’t compete in the global economy. When unions in the US get all up in arms because corporations move jobs to other countries, they’re told “too bad, so sad”. How is this different?

    Honestly, with digital publishing the barriers to being profitable whether your company is based in the US, New Zealand, India, wherever, are simply not there. NZ moaning because eliminating territorial rights would deprive them of a piece of someone else’s pie is simple greed.

    Why aren’t publishers in NZ baking their own damn pie? Why aren’t they fostering local talent? Why aren’t they harnessing the technology that makes it as easy for them to sign and publish a Canadian author and sell her books worldwide as it is for a US publisher to do the same?

    It seems like they’re clinging by the ragged ends of their fingernails to the profits of an outdated model, and ignoring the newer model that could bring more wealth into their pockets. To be frank, when I’m looking to submit my work to a digital publisher, I don’t care where they’re based–because email, direct deposit, digital edits, etc, means I never have to pay a dime to ship my manuscript, or wait weeks and weeks for payment. My only consideration is “do they buy worldwide digital rights?” Because, frankly, the more books they sell direct from their store–whether to customers in the US, Europe or freaking Antarctica, the more money lands in my pocket.

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  21. Estara
    Oct 11, 2009 @ 14:01:54

    As a German buyer I can only say that – ever since Amazon.de opened in Germany – hmmm – no ever since Amazon.com opened, I have been able to import US hardcovers and paperbacks at vastly reduced prices compared to the German editions (we have Buchpreisbindung – there’s no way to offer most books cheaper than their list price – except if they’re used or after a certain time has gone by – bargain priced) and when they come out in their original language.

    Since Amazon.de started I haven’t even needed to pay import postage, it’s included in the price they offer on Amazon.de for the US or UK books (buying the books in Germany all regular shipping is free – no special subscription needed. If I buy other things than books I need to have my order come to more than € 20 and then shipping is free again; regular shipping if the book is available in their German warehouse taking about 2 days, otherwise they’re quite happy to get it from the US in a few days and then ship it to me). This also works with preorders of not yet published books.

    I haven’t bought a book written by an English-speaking author in translation for more than 10 years.

    The only thing that not offering me the ebooks means to the publisher is that I think more about my purchase (no instant gratification) and buy used books when the books are out of print (International Marketplace Traders are quite willing to send to me, as long as I’m happy with the additional shipping charge, as is Amazon.co.uk for that matter).

    As a matter of fact I just received a Kathleen Seidel book, used, yesterday from a warehouse in New Zealand – sent within 12 days.

    Aside: if the paperback of a US book is cheaper than the ebook price, I’ll buy the paperback.

    In conclusion, Amazon not selling US ebooks internationally = hypocritical.

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  22. Likari
    Oct 11, 2009 @ 14:51:08

    I mentioned on Twitter, I'm attracted to the idea of VAT on ebooks. I think it's the answer to piracy.
    When governments have a tax interest in quashing the pirates, maybe something will happen to quash them!

    As for territorial rights, that’s a remnant of print, isn’t it? If agents would separate the e deal from the print deal, that would be a start. But it looks like NY can’t let go; they’re hanging on to the e as if it might save them from what they have become.

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  23. Kaetrin
    Oct 11, 2009 @ 20:43:13

    As an Australian, I don’t see how my buying a book digitally will change the local publishing industry. The books I buy digitally are usually only otherwise available from bookstores who import the books from the US.

    What do Harlequin have to say about it? They’re prepared to sell me their titles from their US-based ebookstore. I can also buy their paper titles from my local department store but mostly I choose the digital version.

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  24. Rebecca Herman
    Oct 11, 2009 @ 21:38:44

    I agree with Angie. I am one of those readers that strongly prefers print books. I love holding a book, displaying books on my shelf, knowing I’ll have the book forever if I choose regardless of changing technologies/companies going out of business/etc. Most of the people I know who prefer printed editions have similar feelings. For me, even if an ebook was available cheaper, it wouldn’t change my views. I don’t want an ereader and hate reading on my computer. I will either buy the local edition or purchase a printed foreign copy from an online bookseller, whichever is faster/easier/cheaper and if those are all equal it comes down to which has a prettier cover. :-P I live in the US and like some of the Mills & Boon historicals which aren’t always published here, and I pay more, sometimes significantly more, to buy the printed copy, even though M&B will sell the ebook internationally (I think) because I so strongly prefer a print copy.

    The only exception I make is I will buy a PDF/Adobe for Windows copy of a book by a favorite author that will never be available in a printed copy. Such as some of the Harlequin ebook short stories which I bought the version I can read on my PC.

    So I personally don’t feel many sales would be lost by offering a digital copy internationally. The people who wanted the ebook and couldn’t get it would probably either pass on the book (if they hate printed books) or have ordered a US edition already (if it was just that they wanted to get the book fast). The people who prefer printed books will still probably buy the Australian edition or whatever published a year after the American one because they want an actual physical book. Also many casual readers (people who consistantly buy a few popular titles per year but not much else) will continue to buy the local editions of those bestsellers but won’t be able to afford, or don’t feel justified in the investment, of an ebook reader.

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  25. Blue Tyson
    Oct 11, 2009 @ 22:52:59

    You’d think that if New Zealand (and Australian) publishers wanted to foster a local market they’d be selling ebooks of at least their most popular authors. But no. Admittedly if only selling in their own territory sales will be tiny, as having a separate New Zealand territory is like having one for Melbourne, or for Dallas. A little foresight or R&D and they could have been selling to the world for years? As a large percentage of their lists will never garner overseas contracts.

    But nup, because they are followers, and slow followers only.

    Oceania media organisations have demonstrated consistently little interest in innovation over many decades, sporting coverage aside.

    As far as the Kindle in NZ that is likely the demands of their extortionate telco monopoly I’d imagine.

    It is still pretty funny how the 21st century publishing model is a determination to sell fewer books.

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  26. Annette Gisby
    Oct 12, 2009 @ 02:41:35

    I’m in the UK and about two weeks ago I tried to buy the new Dan Brown ebook. Lots of sites refused to sell to me point blank because I’m in the UK. I finally tracked down a copy at Waterstones ebook section, but they only had it in Digital Editions, which I didn’t have for my Sony. So first of all I had to download and install that before I was even allowed to buy the book. I bought the book, the link didn’t work straightaway, so I was on the phone for twenty minutes to waterstones to sort it out. What should have taken five minutes took nearer to two hours. I finally did get the book; then discovered that I could have bought the hardback for half the price of the ebook! Was I annoyed? Of course I was.

    I won’t be buying any ebooks from the “big” publishers in future. Too many restrictions and too high a price. I’ll stick to the smaller publishers who allow their books to be in multiformats so that I can actually read them on the Sony, the reason I bought an ebook device in the first place. I want to be able to read books on it :)

    On the amazon uk front page the other day, they made a big noise about how you could now buy the Kindle if you lived in the UK. All well and good, but not if you can’t buy the books you want to read on it! Talk about stupidity.

    take care,
    Annette

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  27. NKKingston
    Oct 12, 2009 @ 07:19:13

    VAT is usually included in UK prices (and I think most European countries – certainly I’ve never been stung by tax added at POS). I wonder if this is part of the price difference, or if the price currently quotes is not including VAT?

    To be honest, I’ve never noitced paying a higher price for my books than US customers, not taking the exchange rate into account. Most of the time the US prices I see quotes seem quite high; maybe this just reflects the books I buy, though.

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  28. Annelie
    Oct 12, 2009 @ 09:11:35

    For some years I’m buying my English books with Amazon, lately with two other German retailers who sometimes have the better prize. Lately I noticed that there seems to be quite a competion between these three retailers and I need to look twice (or even thrice) befor ordering the book.
    As the currency rate ($ – €) was rather unsteady during the last months, sometimes the paperbacks were cheaper in Germany than in the US, sometimes the other way round.
    Many books are delivered very quickl, others need two to six weeks. That was mainly the reason why I tried e-books. All was well but than came the geographical restrictions. Fictionwise offers many very good rebates – but not for readers in many other countries. That’s annoying but I can partly understand.
    But not beeing able to buy some titles as e-books even if I can buy the paperback or hardback (with the prize of the print book lower than the e-book!) in Germany, I truly can’t understand and it makes me very angry. Some titles I’ve noticed are sold by other German e-book retailers but for a higher prize. In this case the geogr. restriction makes sense even if it is annoying.
    Harlequin. by the way, sells its books everywhere for the same prize.
    What I can’t understand at all is, that I tried to buy books by bothz the same author and publisher: I got two but the third one? Guess: Geogr. Restriction. And that makes no sense at all.
    If the publishers want to establish e-books on the international market they should elimintate these restrictions as soon as possible.

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  29. Has
    Oct 12, 2009 @ 09:51:50

    What I find interesting that VAT isn’t added in print books or even audio books. But as ebooks they are classed as software which is why there is VAT added- but what I would like to know that if you buy from outside the UK you dont get charged but inside you do and its a hidden tax.
    Governements need to update their laws as well- esp since the current mantra of going green and helping the environment which the current UK Governement likes to portray itself to be. Its a huge tangled mess.

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  30. DS
    Oct 12, 2009 @ 12:01:33

    I admit I don’t understand VAT– except that Canada gave it back to me when I left, which I thought was pretty decent of them.

    Because the NY publishers are interested in digital rights, I would like to know if they are interested in only buying certain rights– say in the US– or is it the authors/agents who are concerned that the foreign rights may be less attractive package if the digital rights are separated?

    Can anyone speak to this?

    ReplyReply

  31. Looks like I'll be leaving Amazon soon… « Zoe E. Whitten's blog
    Oct 12, 2009 @ 21:16:17

    [...] like I'll be leaving Amazon soon… Okay, first, go read this article: The International Digital Rights Mess (or Amazon's Cock Up). If you don’t, here’s the recap: Without my permission, Amazon jacked up the prices of [...]

  32. Andreas Schaefer
    Nov 09, 2010 @ 17:17:14

    Protecting countries ability to sustain their own publishers – good idea – but with the regional restrictions MORE happens – for nthe VAST majority of books the selespotential of an English Language edition in GErmany is pretty low – to low to sell the “English German rights” presuambly the same applies for Italian French Spanish rights in Germany and German language rights anywhere where people DON’T speak German normally. these are minority markets selling ‘imported’ DVDs or e-books or books will not affect the market potential of the translated into local language rights.
    [ there are occasional exceptions : at the hight of the Harry potter craze there was a lot of imports : and presumably buyers of those imported editions will not buy a translated 'local' edition. ]

    If any reader doubts this: ask yourself what the economic potential of a German edition of the collected works Goethe/Schiller , Thomas Mann, Heinrich Boell, Guenther Grass, .. is. [ unless you live in a German speaking country ] It is close to zero.
    Unless one of those works is becoming favorite reading in Foreign language courses nationwide there is no money to be made from those books.[ for years nearly every school in Germany was reading Catcher in the Rye , Lord of the4 flies and in recent years Dead Poet Society - consequently second hand bookshops are swamped with those ] Now with the German Authors list above I suspect that even translations would not do overly well – certainly the original untranslated stuff is not saleable.

    Hope I make sense .

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  33. Is Amazon Destroying our Writers? | Fiona Catherine
    Nov 19, 2013 @ 10:22:02

    […] their books all over the globe, as well as providing online via Kindles, doing this takes away each territorial right. Usually a writer would get paid for each country their book is released in but this has now been […]

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